Just Before Nightfall

            Leonard Falls awakens from a restless sleep. He had hoped that the rhythmic sway of a rowboat on the open seas would put him to sleep and keep him there for a long time. He had hoped that when he awakened from that deep sleep he would find himself back on his familiar bed. He would turn to his side, see his silver anniversary wife still sleeping beside him, and let out an audible sigh. He would caress his wife’s shoulder just like he used to do when they were newlyweds sharing an apartment in a college town. His fingers had been more nimble back then. Indeed, when he thinks on it, everything about his life then had been softer, subtler, like he really had all the time in the world. On those endless mornings, he would massage his wife’s shoulder slowly, patiently, his fingers moving just enough for her to stir from her dreams and to roll onto her back. She would smile back at him without opening her eyes.

            He had had many hopes once, but that was a very long time ago. As the years passed, he had thrown away his hopes like used socks. There were simply too many holes. He could no longer wear them.

            By the time he found himself on this rowboat, he only had two hopes left: He wanted to be able to sleep for a long time, and he wanted to be able to awaken on his familiar bed beside his wife. He no longer cared if she was the beautiful newlywed in the college town or the foulmouthed hag stricken with debilitating arthritis. Frankly, he would have been just as happy if, when he caressed her shoulder, she rolled onto her back, opened her eyes, and scolded him for not managing to hold onto the office job that provided them both health insurance.

            Now, he is losing even those two hopes. The mist hangs heavily over the boat at all hours. It is a suffocating veil that hides the days and the nights, so that the only time he can sense is a hazy and listless dusk. Hopes cannot survive in that tired hour between twilight and night. They turn stale, and in an aging man’s mind they appear less real, let alone obtainable, with every passing ocean wave.

            Leonard does not remember how long it has been since he sat up in the boat. What he recalls is that he had a difficult time breathing when he had his head in the mist. The mist remained an airy moisture fog the whole time he sat up, and yet it felt like it was starting to coagulate on his face. He touched his face repeatedly then, and he would have sworn there was a silky film spreading from his ears to his nose. The damned mist wanted to suffocate him. That makes no sense in retrospect, but at the time he intuited a kind of sentience in all that ocean fog. The mind in that fog did not have any other thought but to kill him.

            He had pushed himself back, and had hit the back of his head against the boat deck. He is pretty sure he blanked out, though the sleep that followed his experience in the mist was as disquieting as every other time he nods off.

            He has had no desire to sit up since then. He recalls not being able to observe more than a hundred feet in each direction. The mist bobs and sways like a rowboat just above the reach of the waves. The filtered sunlight casts a sick greyness over the ocean. There is not even a hint of the rich, blue color we normally associated with an ocean. For Leonard, though the waves splashed up against the rowboat at times with considerable ferocity, the grey pall suggested an ocean bereft of life. Whenever foam sprinkled over the hull and onto the deck, Leonard gathered up what he could reach for his nose. He could neither smell nor taste any saltiness.

            Leonard stares up at the mist. He can make out individual moisture droplets. They bob and sway on a breeze he cannot feel. They never drop as rain on his flesh, but neither do they ascend. He has no sense of direction on this rowboat, but to the extent he can feel a subtle shift in velocity one way or another he sees that the mist moves with him.

            This continues for an indefinite period of time. Then, suddenly, there is a big thump against the right side of the boat. Leonard almost had fallen back into restless sleep when the impact stirs him.

            Leonard reflexively sits up on his elbows. Already, it is harder to breathe due to his closer proximity to the mist, but an adrenaline rush propels him to sit up even further. He looks out over the starboard side.

            Something sinks beneath a wave no more than ten feet away. What he could see in that split second had been grey and mangled. It also had seemed very stiff. His first thought is that it had been a log discolored and beaten hard by the currents, but what is the likelihood of hitting a log so far from the shore?

            Of course, he has no idea how far he is from any shoreline. Distance out here is as mysterious as direction. He thinks about those seamen of old who travelled for weeks in a thick soup of fog only to find out at the very last moment, when the soup suddenly dissipates, that they are about to smash into the rocks. Could that happen out here? Is it possible enough for him to be hopeful?

            Leonard almost had given up on the very idea of hope. He had been brewing in his depression out here for some time, but recently his depression had morphed into a listless despair. His self-pity had transformed into the psychological limbo of blank and unfeeling indifference. That despair must not yet have calcified his spirit completely, for even a glimmer of hope pulls him back up into a seated position with a renewed focus on what may be out there.

            Leonard has to breathe through his open mouth, because the mist is pushing down on his nose already. He ignores that for the most part, though, as he scans the grey waves for any sign of what he is now sure had been a weathered log. He checks the port side as well. There is no reason to presume the log must breach the surface again on the starboard side. Given how the waves sometimes splash into each other at odd angles, Leonard presumes that the currents beneath the surface can push an object in any direction.

            Time is less measureable with every passing moment out her, so Leonard has no idea how long he sits up scanning the ocean waves for another sign of that log. He thinks it has been “a very long time.” He gives up the hunt at last when even his open mouth breaths are insufficient. He will faint if his head remains in this mist too much longer, and so he reluctantly lies back down on the deck.

*   *   *

            Leonard slips in and out of consciousness for an indefinite period. Still unable to sleep soundly, he sways between twilight and night in much the same way as this strange oceanic world around him.

            Twice during this time the log returns. It bumps against the starboard side of the rowboat, and it sinks beneath a wave before Leonard can get a good look. Every time he sits up looking for it to reappear, until the mist forces him down to the deck.

            Leonard has just awakened from another restless sleep. He stares at the mist.

            An object thumps the starboard side; but this time, after the initial impact, it remains there scratching against the hull. It sounds like it has caught on something.

            Leonard sits up on his elbows. He thinks about how uncomfortable it will be for him to sit up in the mist, but his excitement is as great now as the first time that thing brushed up against his rowboat. If the rowboat is dragging it across the ocean surface right now, then he will have a chance to investigate it. He still expects that it is a log, but even that prospect gives him hope that indeed there is a shore out there somewhere. If a log can strike his boat, then perhaps his boat can strike a beach.

            Leonard looks over the side of his boat. His heart stops a moment, and he has to clutch at his chest to squeeze life back into his blood. This is the last thing he ever expected to see again.

            Instead of a log, he sees the corpse of a small, blond girl. She is no more than eight or nine. Her flesh from the neck down is a mangled stew of seaweed and blood. Her blond hair is almost white. It is long, and flows back from her forehead along the ocean surface. Her innocent angel face is severely scarred, and her right eye is gone. Either the eye had popped out, or it had been chewed out from its socket by critters in the ocean. The result is a muck filled black hole where the eye should be. The hole calls to mind a patch, and with the other eye glassy and wide open the girl resembles a diminutive Cyclops. Even more disconcerting, her mouth is open, like she had died while still screaming in fright.

            Wipe away the wounds, and she is the mirror image of a photograph Leonard saw while convalescing from an automobile accident years ago. He hated that grainy newspaper picture then, just as he hates the angelic corpse now; for in that image he saw more than the innocent face of a traffic fatality. He saw his own future downfall.

*   *   *

            Leonard has been in denial for the past two weeks. He is still in considerable pain, and much of his body remains bandaged, but he knows now that in time he will be going home without permanent injury.

            His life is shattered, though. He saw an automobile insurance renewal notice in the mail a few days before his trip, and he made a mental note then to renew over the phone. That mental note never matured into a Post-It Note, let alone a call to his agent, and so he left for Seattle in an uninsured vehicle. The recollection popped into his mind about an hour into the trip, but by then he was running late. He passed by a road stop and almost pulled over to make a phone call to his agent, but with a glance at his watch he decided against it. What was the likelihood something would happen on this stretch of highway on a sunny afternoon?

            So now he is sitting up on a hospital bed with a folded newspaper on his lap. The DMV already has pulled his license. He has been served the complaint in a huge wrongful death suit that will bankrupt him. His boss has fired his ass and soiled his name around town. He has yet to take a look at the little girl he killed, but his wife is insistent. He will never be able to move forward, if he does not start “to normalize” what happened. He needs to replace the phantom victim he has constructed within his mind with the real person. When he humanizes her, then he can start the process of humanizing himself, or so his wife has said repeatedly for the past several days.

            Where did she dig up this pop psychology? Leonard has no idea. She watches Oprah and Dr. Phil a lot on television, so perhaps some of that nonsense has rubbed off on her. He is not mad at her, though. He really cannot blame his wife for grabbing at whatever straws she can. She needs to make sense of this life-altering event even more than he does. He will be hit hard by the legal and financial storm that is about to follow; but eventually, he will be able to move on with his life. On the other hand, his wife is on permanent disability. She cannot stand without a cane, and very soon she will not be able to stand at all. When he lost his license, she lost her one and only breadwinner. When he lost his job, she lost her health insurance. When eventually he is destitute, he can “move on” with or without his wife, but she cannot.

            She is right. He has constructed a kind of phantom victim in his mind the past two weeks. To some extent this can be blamed on the morphine the hospital nurses have administered, but more so it is because he has refused to confront what he did and to whom he did it. He has looked away whenever the local news coverage on the hospital room TV has featured the accident. He has tossed every newspaper his wife has given him; because he knew that the little girl’s pretty picture would be in there somewhere. Newspaper editors always choose the cutest photo when featuring little girl victims. It tugs on the heartstrings, and he knew it would break his.

            Today, his wife insists that he unfold the newspaper and take a look. His wife is in a lot of pain. She is having a hard time standing with her cane beside his bed. All he has to do is to look at the picture, and then she can go home and rest her legs. His avoidance is great, but his love for her is greater.

            He unfolds the newspaper, and turns to the column about the wrongful death suit. Sure enough, the little girl’s pretty picture is there. She is the model of cuteness. Her bright eyes and big smile welcome a long life ahead. That life will be hers for the taking, unless that life is ripped out from her hands.

            Tears flow, and Leonard sets aside the newspaper. The phantom victim exits from his mind almost immediately. In her place is that little girl, and she will remain lodged there until the day he dies…

            And perhaps even longer than that…

            Leonard looks into his wife’s eyes. He is hoping for forgiveness, but he cannot find any empathy there. Though he has done what she has asked, at that moment his wife offers him nothing but cold judgment. He wonders if she wanted him to see that picture, not “to normalize” what happened, but to make sure that he is haunted by it. Perhaps rather than trying to help him she wanted to cripple him, just as she will be crippled for the rest of her life. Leonard tries to set aside that thought. He still wants to think her intentions toward him are loving and good, but her cold and silent stare makes that hard to believe.

            His wife eventually hobbles away without saying another word. Leonard will not see her again until he is discharged. The marriage will survive for as long as she lives, but it will never be the same. The light has gone out from it, and in its place is a cold fog in which husband and wife can hide from one another their genuine feelings and thoughts. For as long as the marriage persists avoidance instead of intimacy will prevail, and the result is a slow and creeping debilitation toward lonely, cold graves.

            In Leonard’s mind, this all begins when he first sees the little girl’s picture. He cannot undo what he did. The rowboat will go where it goes, or it will go nowhere at all, regardless of what he may do, for in confronting what he did he set into motion a fate he could not control.

*   *   *

            The little girl’s corpse floats away from the rowboat. Her hair had entangled with the hull, but it loosens without Leonard having to reach down to touch it. He is relieved to see it slip beneath a wave several yards away, but senses that he will see it again before too long.

            He drops back down to the deck, and shuts his eyes. Even restless sleep is not possible. The image glows against a black backdrop, whenever he shuts his eyes, and fades in and out of the mist whenever he opens them. He looks to the side, and views that same image as if carved into the damp wood. He tosses and turns every way but cannot avoid the disfigured Cyclops staring back at him. He thinks he hears the high-pitched yelp coming out from her open mouth. It is the sound a wounded dog makes.

            Now and then, there is a thump against the starboard side. Sometimes, it just goes away as fast as it came. Other times, it sticks around a while, scratching against the hull, and taunting him to take another look.

            Leonard does not look. He does not need to. He sees her everywhere already.

            Some time passes, and though he continues to see her, he starts to calm down a little. He almost feels like he is going to fall asleep. He cannot recall when he felt so relaxed. It is a sensation so foreign to his time out here on the ocean.

            It is also a false calm. He just closes his eyes, when suddenly a splash of water crashes over him. His eyes open wide in time to see the little girl’s corpse all the way down to her waist. She has been pushed up over the starboard side presumably by a wave. Her seaweed and blood mangled arms reach out. It is like they are hugging the mist directly above his rowboat. He scarred face smashes up and to her left side like it has hit hard an unseen barrier. She looks right down at Leonard with her one good eye. Her scream shortens into a dog’s yelp because of blood squirting out her throat.

            Leonard wails. He instinctively holds his right forearm over his eyes, but this does not block out the image nor drown out the sound.

*   *   *

            Leonard is running late already. He had decided not to pull over and to call his insurance agent, because he had noticed then that he was running about fifteen minutes late. Now, his watch tells him that he is forty-five minutes behind. He has a very important meeting scheduled in Seattle. If all goes well, he will be able to leave his present job for a higher paying opportunity in a bigger city. His wife will be able to go to much better doctors up there. He is confident the interview will go well. He has done really well in the phone interviews and expects much the same in person.

            If he shows up in time, though…

            The Winnebago in front of him is not helping his cause. It has been a slow and wide road companion for the last twenty miles. He imagines a retiree wearing an old “Gone Fishin’” cap on his white haired head. The frumpy wife fiddles with an ancient Winnebago radio. She is trying to catch Rush Limbaugh on the airwaves, but she has had no success. The marijuana groves up here in northern Oregon practically absorb rightwing radio stations. Only NPR and folk rock stations penetrate the natural force field. Still, the retiree and his wife take their time driving up the highway, for “taking their time” is apparently the official motto for all the seventy-something Winnebago lifers out there on the road.

            The middle of the highway has been double solid lines for eons. Leonard just kicks himself for not trying to pass the last time he could have done so legally. Now, with time ticking away from him, he decides to break that law and hope there are no highway patrolmen watching. He has said jokingly in the past that if no cop pulls you over then you haven’t broken the law. He chooses to think that that applies now.

            Leonard turns into the left side of the highway, and floors the accelerator. His coast seems to be clear…

            Until it isn’t…

            The station wagon comes around the curve and straight towards him. He has no time to react. Even if he did, he is beside the Winnebago, and so cannot turn back into the right side of the highway. In theory, he could have veered further to the left and smashed into a redwood tree, but that thought never occurs to him. All he does is throw up his right forearm defensively, and press down hard on the brake. In the back of his mind somewhere he hears tires squealing on asphalt, but the noise does not seem real to him then. Indeed, none of the phantasms of fear seem real. He sees in the corner of his left eye a little girl exploding out from behind the station wagon windshield. He arms are extended, like she is hugging the air, and her face is turned unnaturally to her left side. He is not sure that that image is real, though. It may be a dark fantasy caught up in the blender in his head.

            There is a powerful thump followed by a prolonged scratching sound. There is a lot of screaming, and somewhere in all that screaming is a dog’s yelp. Then, just as the noises are about to overtake him, Leonard slips into a deep sleep. He believes he will sleep a long time, and hopes when he awakens that he is back in his own bed beside his beautiful wife. He wants to wake up, turn over, and massage her shoulder.

*   *   *

            Leonard is not sure if he fell asleep. He does not know if the little girl corpse actually fell onto him, or if the corpse simply vanished into the mist. All he knows is that some period of time has passed, and he is lying on the deck of his rowboat just staring up at the droplets hovering over him. He feels the sway of the rowboat, and hears the occasional wave splashing up against the hull.

            Earlier, his depression had declined into blank indifference. Depression can be tumultuous. Blank indifference is like a slow air leak from a popped balloon. The incident with the little girl corpse changed all that. He would have done nothing but slowly leak away into his own nightfall, if she had not been pushed over the side and into his rowboat. The sheer terror he experienced in that incident has given him one clear resolve he did not have before. Now, he wants to die sooner, rather than wait a long time for life to fade away. He does not care if a more immediate death is painful or full of anguish. He wants off this rowboat. He wants his memories to be lost in the eternal darkness that follows.

            Leonard stands up on the deck of his rowboat. He has to hold out his arms to steady himself, as the rowboat moves erratically from side to side. He almost falls to his knees more than once, but his determination to commit suicide is much stronger than his imbalance. He manages to stand upright, and even pushes his chin up to get as far into the mist as possible.

            As expected, it is impossible to breathe this high in the mist. The filmy bubbles spread across his face and his neck. The shroud is choking him; and, instinctually, he reaches up for his throat. He fights hard the urge to fall back down to the deck. It is a much stronger urge than he had anticipated, and the fight manifests itself in physical shaking and near delirium. Still, though his mind is fleeing from him, he holds firm in his objective. He remains upright, horrified, but defiant, as the mist chokes him blue.

*   *   *

            Leonard staggers back into his apartment. It is well passed midnight, and he is as drunk as he is most nights. The menial work he has been able to find since the DMV pulled his license and the wrongful death suit pulled his reputation can barely pay the rent and his wife’s painkillers. What little he has left in his jeans after those expenses pays for beer and whiskey shots at the street corner tavern. He really does not have any friends there. They are drinking buddies as hopelessly lost as he is. He knows nothing about them apart from their drinking preferences, and he prefers to think they know as little about him. Years have passed since his dour face appeared on the local news. People have short memories for tragedies that do not affect them directly. Still, there are times when he will catch a wayward glance in his direction.

            Leonard takes off his grubby jacket. He tries to hook it beside the door, but it falls to the floor. He is too pissed drunk to notice. Really, it does not matter. His wife is permanently bedridden. She barely sits up on her bed pillows to eat, and she pees into a bag that he changes every few hours. She will never see the jacket there. If she did, she would not bother to complain about it anyway. She gave up on her husband long ago. They do not live for one another any more, and barely live for themselves.

            Without bothering to switch on the light, Leonard steps toward the couch. He has been sleeping on the couch for years. He goes into the bedroom to be a fumbling nurse every few hours, but otherwise they each prefer for the other one to be out of sight and, as much as possible, out of mind. This is how they have learned to handle their lives under the same roof. To the extent that there is still a marriage, it is like a balloon slowly leaking away what little air remains inside. It is a flaccid, grey reality, and when one of them is dead it will not even be that much.

            Leonard has kicked off his loafers, when he hears a hard choking sound from inside the bedroom. He is not sure what he hears. The alcohol has numbed his once nimble reflexes. Otherwise, he would have charged into the bedroom by now to find out what is wrong. Instead, he just stumbles in there like there is no reason to worry about anything in the world.

            The bedroom door is ajar, and the lamp is still on inside. That is very strange, for his wife always turns off the light well before he staggers back home. This should be enough to slap him awake, but he remains as dumb drunk as when he first heard the choking sound.

            He steps into the bedroom. He is about to mutter something apologetic when he sees his wife shaking erratically and grabbing for her throat. The adrenaline kicks in, and Leonard rushes to her side. She looks up at him. There is a terrible fear in her eyes. He thinks of a small animal about to be cornered and killed by a large predator.

            He sees the empty bottle of painkillers on her stomach. She overdosed, and is suffocating to death on what appears to be her own vomit. All over her face is a kind of white, bubbly mist. It has encrusted onto her skin like a shroud. Perhaps, this thin shroud is that first discharge of vomit that flew up into the air, and then rained back down to her face. The rest of the vomit is a gooey lump that never escaped from her mouth before sliding into her trachea. The lump gets bigger and more compact with each new discharge from her stomach.

            Leonard tries to grab her hand. The problem is that her hand moves too fast, and his too slow. As much as he wants to comfort her, he finally gives up and instead grabs for the telephone on the nightstand. He is impaired by alcohol and worry, but at least can dial 911. He hangs up, looks down, and sees his wife’s ordeal finally end.

*   *   *

            Leonard thinks he is about to die. He observes the mist all around him fading into seamless grey. There are no more droplets, and no more airy clouds moving in a rhythmic dance with the ocean waves beneath them. It is a dead peace that brings to an end the frenzied physical and mental struggle to stay alive. Superficially, Leonard feels restful in that last moment in limbo, but just beneath the surface he senses that this taste of eternal rest is a cruel hoax. He intuits that the little girl’s corpse is inside the eternal darkness about to follow. She will find him in there, just as she found him repeatedly on the ocean. His wife will be in there too. She will be staring at him with cold judgment in her eyes, and she will reproach him in silence for totally failing her.

            Death is not an out, because Leonard will not be alone in death. Just as this is clear in his mind, he passes out, and falls back hard onto the deck.

*   *   *

            Leonard is not sure if he slept. If he did, it was not restful. He is awake on the deck and feeling as sleepless as before. He does not flinch when ocean waves splash over the side. He may be drenched, and his teeth may chatter uncontrollably, but he will be the same as he would have been if the waves had never reached him. Change is no longer really possible for him, or so he thinks as he feels the rowboat eternally swaying from side to side on the route to nowhere.

            Then, suddenly, everything is different. He feels the difference, before he can see what it is. At first, he does not feel particularly hopeful. He had been hopeful the last time he sensed something different, but his hope turned out to be premature. If there is any lesson to be learned from his prolonged time on the ocean, it is the utter futility of hope.

            Still, the difference is palpable, and he should find out what it is. Leonard sits up on his elbows. He stares more intently into the mist above him.

            There is a bright light filtering through the mist. It switches on and off several times. Though he cannot measure the time, there seems to be a pattern in the pulses. Is this Morse code? He would not be able to decipher it even if it is, but that is not all that important. What is important is that if it is a code of some sort then it cannot be a naturally occurring phenomenon. This may mean a lot, or it may mean little. At the very least it suggests that there is more to this oceanic world than Leonard, his boat, and his personal demons.

            Leonard sits upright. He finds it difficult to breathe, but that barely registers. He is focused right now on that pulsing light. Is it really out there, or is he imagining something? If this is his imagination, then does it emanate from a very deep reserve of hope that frankly he had thought to be extinguished?

            He sees nothing but the familiar mist. He is about to recline, when he makes out the pulsing light again. It follows the same pattern as before. It is definitely some sort of code. He wants to stand up. Perhaps, his vision would be better up there, but he resists the temptation. There is no reason to suppose he will do better on his feet than he did the last time.

            Pulling in as much air as he can through his open mouth, Leonard watches as the pulsing light finishes its pattern, switches off for a while, and then repeats itself. His prior reticence is gone. He is hopeful again. He reaches into the water and starts to hand paddle toward the light. Rationally, he knows that his hand is not much of a force against the ocean currents, which will take his rowboat where they please, but his enthusiasm gets the better of him. He splashes back water relentlessly, and stays focused on the pulsing light that is somewhere ahead of him.

            For the first time, the mist starts to dissipate. It is subtle initially, but Leonard has spent so much time staring into it that he can tell the difference. He paddles back the ocean waves with even more ferocity, and the barest hint of a smile cracks on his granite worn face.

            Then, all at once, the mist is gone, and the bow of his rowboat bumps into the top of a jagged rock. It splinters into a V shaped, open mouth, and starts to guzzle as much ocean water and foam as it can take. The water fills the deck, and splashes up against Leonard’s face. The hull on both sides bursts, and the rowboat starts to sink.

            Leonard sees the shoreline. It is not much more than a collection of boulders like the one that just impaled his boat, but it is a refuge. Moreover, he sees on the far side a plain, white lighthouse that measures about a hundred feet high. It looks like the Alcatraz lighthouse he remembers seeing on a trip to San Francisco many years ago. There is a beacon at the top of the tower that is flashing code out into the mist. The mist retreats from the light like a vampire from a crucifix.

            The water is not really deep enough for swimming, and so Leonard wades in the ocean towards the shoreline. The waves crash like Kamikaze flights into the big rocks, and the foam splashing backwards temporarily blinds him every time. There is a fierce undertow that nearly sweeps him off his feet, but he persists forward with a dogged determination he had thought long dead.

            Something catches the corner of his eye, and he looks over in time to see the little girl’s corpse bobbing in the water towards him. Her outstretched arms are only a few feet away. He can see seaweed sliding out from her empty eye socket. He hears a scream that is cut short into a dog’s yelp.

            Frantically, Leonard stomps across a ring of sharp coral to get away. He slices open his right foot, and cries out in pain as the salt water pours into his wound. He is more intent on escaping than on nursing his wound, though, and so he does not slow down his pace. He splashes water back at the corpse with the irrational hope that he can to push her away, but the waves propel her forward with greater intensity.

            He feels her hands grabbing at his torso. She has long, coarse fingernails that cut into his abdomen. The rest of her hands feel like seaweed and blood. They do not grasp so much as they slither. Only the fingernails penetrate his skin and manage to flick off bits of his flesh.

            Leonard screams and shakes erratically. He wants to knock her away, but he only manages to grind both of his feet further into the coral reef. He feels the blood pulsing out from the wounds on his soles, but that hardly matters now.

            His right arm flails back, and his elbow butts the little girl’s face. Her scarred head snaps backward so that it is dangling over the back of her neck. Seeing what he has done, Leonard throws an intentional punch with his left fist into her chin. What is left of her head snaps off completely, and floats away.

            Still, the little girl’s hands continue to slither all over his torso, and her strong fingernails remain as intent on digging into his flesh. Leonard moves closer to one of the boulders, and intentionally slams his torso against it. The impact breaks a few of his ribs, but manages to knock the little girl’s hands off. Her headless corpse reaches for him again, but the undertow sweeps her away before her fingernails can dig into his flesh. The same undertow almost drags Leonard away, too, but he is able to hang on to the boulder long enough to grind his feet further into the coral.

            Leonard hobbles the rest of the way. He falls to his knees on the shore, and he looks back. He sees the headless corpse bobbing on the waves less than fifty feet off. It submerges every now and then, but always pops back up in the same vicinity. It is not being swept away completely, but rather remaining in a holding pattern around the islet. Though hard to make out in the twilight of dusk, he thinks he sees her head bobbing beside her the whole time.

            Leonard rolls onto his back. He watches the beacon lighting the starless, dark purple sky above him. Here, it is only a minute or two from nightfall. He wants to see the first evening star twinkle above him, but of course that does not happen. It never will happen so long as he remains here. Since he found himself on the rowboat, time has not been moving at all. Rather, he has been moving into time. He reckons he has moved from dusk to the last moment before nightfall. If somehow he were to return to the ocean and continue further out, he wonders if he would reach nightfall finally, or if like in Zeno’s Paradox he would forever slice the distance between himself and his own nightfall in half. Perhaps, the darkness is always out of reach. Perhaps, there is no final escape but only temporary refuges on rocky shorelines like this one here.

*   *   *

            Leonard leans over his cane. He can barely breathe, and his eyesight is blurry from cataracts he cannot afford to have removed. He really should be back in bed at this late hour. It is almost nightfall, and the winter chill is flicking off his greyed flesh and gnawing into his bones.

            It is the twentieth anniversary of the night she died, though, and he has been here at this spot every anniversary since then. He stoops a little lower so that he can make out her name on the damp tombstone. Chiseled granite is about as permanent a mark as a man can make in his lifetime. It is not eternal. It will erode in time, but it is readable for hundreds of years. Paper fades much faster, and the mysterious men behind the curtain can erase electronic records whenever they choose.

            Leonard does not shed any tears. He is too riddled with cancer to cry for any person but himself. He is also avoiding the emotional impact of the moment as much as he tried to avoid that little girl’s picture before his wife insisted he look at her. He is here out of a sense of duty. For years, as she transformed before his eyes from the beautiful woman he married to the spiteful cripple he loathed, she reprimanded him at every turn for failing to do what was necessary. The car accident exacerbated this trend, until he no longer spoke with her except as required to switch out her yellow pee bags. He neither fed her, nor filled her prescriptions, so that he could stay away from her that much more. He paid a Mexican neighbor a pittance to do that instead; but the old lady would not handle the yellow pee bag, so he had to do that much. He kept his resentment closest to his heart, even after she died, and so he comes out to her grave every year to prove that he is not that irresponsible man she had told him he was. He is fulfilling a duty in coming out here. He is doing the right thing, and he will continue to do so, even if the effort kills him.

            The headlight flickers from behind him. It is from the gravedigger’s old Ford, and the gravedigger wants to go home. He only has one workable headlight, and he flickers it when guests stay too long. For Leonard, the headlight is a kind of beacon. He would be totally lost out here on these rolling hills without it. He looks back, and waves. He wants to let the gravedigger know he is coming back, though he is so far out in the darkness he doubts the old man can see him.

            Leonard turns back, and takes one final look at the tombstone. He does not know it yet, but this will be his last time. His cancer is not going to kill him, but his liver cirrhosis will drop him into his deathbed very soon.

            The headlight goes out. The battery is dead. Leonard is trapped on a dark and rocky hill by his wife’s tombstone as the first of the evening stars twinkles overhead.

*   *   *

            Leonard opens his eyes. Something caught his attention, but he is not certain what. He feels the cold, damp rock beneath him. It is the same as before. He feels the splash of foam from a wave that just crashed into a boulder. Like before, the foam is a greyish, dead film without the smell or the texture of sea salt. He hears the vicious growl of waves striking the shoreline, followed by the snake hiss of waters receding back into the undertow. At first glance everything seems normal. He thinks perhaps his nerves got the better of him. He had been on that rowboat for a long time, and he knows that the headless corpse is still out there bobbing about the waves. Any man in a similar situation would be anxious just then.

            Still, the more he thinks on it, the more he realizes that his anxiety is not the only explanation. He focuses on the sky above him. It had been so clear when he last closed his eyes. Now, it is fuzzy, and getting fuzzier with every passing moment. It is like a mist is creeping over the shoreline…

            Is that possible? He remembers how the mist had retreated before the light. It had hovered low over the ocean but had not touched the shoreline. He had found himself hopeful since God knows when for that very reason.

            Leonard sits up. He turns around to face the lighthouse. It is pitch black, and it is fading in and out of the mist.

            He remembers that there is a moment of darkness, before the beacon pulses again. He does not remember how long that darkness lasts. Measuring time is nearly impossible way out here.

            His anxiety builds as he waits for the beacon to shine again. Without the light he senses that he is as lost now as when he was on the rowboat. He wipes cold sweat off his brow. He feels blood still flowing out from his abdomen and his feet. He needs to get back into the ocean at some point to disinfect his wounds, but first he needs to know that the beacon light is going to resume.

            There is a scratching sound off to the side. Leonard remembers the sound the corpse made on the side of his rowboat, when the little girl’s hair entangled with the hull. Surely, that is not the case here. The undertow carried away the few planks that survived the crash.

            Still, the sound is eerily reminiscent, and it is not going away. Leonard briefly removes his gaze from the lighthouse to check out the noise. He heart freezes before he can make sense of what he sees. His intuition knows already, and is urging him to break out from this momentary freeze and to run away.

            He sees the headless corpse climbing up the shoreline on all fours. Its dagger sharp fingernails are scratching against the rocks along the path. Beside that corpse is the decapitated head. It is oozing forward like a snail. Its one good eye has zeroed in on him. It screams repeatedly, but each scream is truncated into a sad dog’s yelp.

            Even more disconcerting is the white faced woman hobbling beside the head and the headless corpse. He recognizes his wife immediately. It is not the face he fell in love with. It is the grisly face of the suicide victim at the moment she succumbed. The white, bubbly film of vomit is stuck to her face just like that night. It is smeared also all over her limbs and her nightgown. He does not remember that much vomit from that night, but he had been focused on her face.

            As the woman gets closer, Leonard sees the bulge in her throat. The vomit is stuck in there, and that is why she is dead. He also sees her eyes. They are frightened just like when he saw them. She wants help. Notwithstanding what she did, she does not want to die. She is relying on him to make it better for her. Even now, she wants him to rise to the occasion.

            Leonard pushes himself up, and hobbles toward the lighthouse. He is losing a lot of blood still, and every step is a jolt of pain. He moves fast, though, because he is able to feel just how close they are to him. It seems the faster he goes the closer they get to him. He senses what feels like long fingernails scratching at his heels, and this motivates him to push even harder toward the lighthouse.

            By the time he reaches the lighthouse, it is almost entirely shrouded in mist; but he manages to feel his way to the wooden door. He pushes it open with his right shoulder. It takes every last bit of energy for him to do so. It is heavy, and its hinges have rusted over the many years.

            He steps inside a dark, narrow space. He looks back and views his wife about to enter in behind him. He pushes the door shut, and it slams hard on his wife’s right hand. She tries to push the door forward with her trapped hand. At the same time, a scratching sound closer to the bottom of the door suggests that that headless corpse is beside his wife’s legs trying to scratch its way inside.

            Leonard pushes the door again with his shoulder. This time he is able to slam his wife’s hand hard enough that she retreats. He closes the door. He finds a narrow, spiral staircase that ascends to where the beacon is. The brittle steps crack beneath his weight, and about midway up his right foot pushes through one step completely. He pulls his foot back up, and continues to the top. He leaves garish blood smears all over the rail and the steps behind him.  

            By the time he gets to the beacon, Leonard is barely able to stand up because of the blood loss. He leans on the beacon, while trying to figure out why it has turned off. He moves his hands frantically over the control panel hoping to find a knob, or a switch, or perhaps a loosened cord.

            He hears the door open below. Waterlogged feet start to clump up the stairs. More steps creak beneath all that weight, and splinters fall to the damp, stone floor at the base. There is also that horrible scratching sound. Leonard imagines a rat that is trying to gnaw its way up a staircase to its targeted victim. He shivers in fear from that image, but does not stop in looking for a way to turn on the beacon.

            Leonard falls to his knees. The small room at the top of the lighthouse starts to spin at an angle. His vision slides in and out of focus, and he feels like he is about to vomit up blood from intense nausea.

            The beacon switches back on. Leonard is not sure what he did, if anything. He is not able to focus his thoughts anymore. He holds onto the beacon while stumbling down to the floor. In doing so, he rotates the beacon upon its pivot, which causes the beacon to shine down the staircase.

            The decapitated head is about to bite Leonard’s heel, when the light strikes it. The head vanishes. The headless corpse and the woman in white scurry back several steps, and then they too vanish.

            Leonard lets go of the beacon. He rolls onto his back. He never observes how his pursuers vanish. He fears that they are still there, and when he feels the stabbing pain in his legs he presumes that that is the headless corpse digging into him with its fingernails. He cries out in terrible pain, but even more so in agony that he cannot be left alone even in his last moment. They will consume him; literally tear him apart in the end. He knows that that is what is happening to him as he breathes one last time.

*   *   *

            Eventually, the beacon switches off again. The woman in white, the headless corpse, and the decapitated head could return to the lighthouse. The coast is clear to ascend the steps, but they do not have any desire to do so. They want Leonard alive, not dead. The dead envy the living, and in Leonard’s case the living envy the dead. If they are now all lost in the dark then there is no reason to continue with the pursuit.

            The woman in white, the headless corpse, and the decapitated head stumble along the rocks forevermore. They fade in and out of the mist like all old memories.

Published by Michael Sean Erickson

I write, act, and produce films in Los Angeles. Everything else is conjecture.

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